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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 9 March 2015

Critical Thinking

In the second part of our conversation between Tom Wicker and Blanche McIntyre, who have been friends since university, they turn the tables and talk about criticism, star ratings, and the reasons people write.
Tom Wicker

Read the first part of Blanche McIntyre’s conversation with Tom Wicker.

BM: Something I never knew, and have never asked, is where you got the idea in the first place?

TW: What, to review?

BM: Yes!

TW: Um… I think for a long time after I finished my masters and didn’t go ahead with the PhD, I floundered a lot. Because I knew that I loved the area of the arts, but I had always thought that writing about the arts in an intelligent and interesting way was the preserve of university. And it took me a long time – much longer than I had thought it would – to re-orientate myself to a way of seeing it as something I could do ‘in the world’.

BM: So do you think that it’s a public thing that you do? Or a commercial thing?

TW: Well…

BM: As a public role rather than a commercial one.

TW: Yeah… well, I think a lot of people who are reading this will be theatre writers and theatre critics as well. And they will know – as I do – that you don’t do this for money! The arts arena, particularly as budgets on newspapers and magazines contract… and as has always been the case throughout history, when times are hard, people’s first instinct is to go ‘we need to think more about news and politics and where people are getting their food from’ than writing about theatre. So we’re withering on the vine in terms of mainstream publications. So I don’t think I could possibly have done that for money.

But I’m fortunate – more fortunate than many – but because I had a previous career in legal publishing, it left me with a very specific skill set that may not be the most interesting one in the world, but it enables me to carry on earning my living while pursuing theatre writing alongside it. Without suffering crippling loss of income and hardship.

But I think that the shift for me – and probably it lay dormant for a long time after that – was leaving Cambridge, leaving my masters, and moving back to Oxford to finish my thesis because I suffered from a serious bout of depression at Cambridge, which meant the academic year finished but I hadn’t.

BM: I remember that.

Blanche McIntyre's Comedy of Errors

Blanche McIntyre’s Comedy of Errors

TW: So I was working in Borders in Oxford and finishing my thesis in the evenings. Then, on a whim I applied to the London Review of Books for work experience, which I got. And I think just that one week of being in an office of extremely interesting, intelligent people, who were dealing with passionate, intelligent writers, who felt they had something to say, that may well have come from an arts perspective but which had real relevance to the world we were living in, was the kick I needed to see that there were other avenues to pursue my interests without having to cloister myself away in a university library and writing a dissertation.

I think that lodged in my head and I was fortunate to have then – which is still one of my high points of my working life – a six-month internship at the LRB. Working at close quarters with the writers, learning the tools of editing and learning how much an editor has a role in articulating the writer’s voice clearly as well. Not writing over them, but helping them collaboratively… to reach their best expression.

BM: Much like directors and actors.

TW: Yes. Yes. Well, you’d hope so. Where it’s not about ego. You don’t want to be seen in it, but you want to have helped what should be seen to be visible.

BM: But then LRB to theatre-writing is an interesting…

TW: Well, that six months finished and then I was unemployed. And I ran out of money. I was living in a flat… I’d moved into a flat with two flatmates then, it was never supposed to be a permanent thing – it was an interim thing until we moved into a place of our own. It was a basement flat in Archway, which had virtually no light and bright purple PVC curtains.

BM: Just like the theatre!

TW: [laughs] And a gospel choir two buildings down that… what I appreciated about their enthusiasm on a Sunday morning, I minded hugely in terms of the point at which they started… Um, and then I took a job at the legal directory company, which you mentioned earlier. Where I started off as a writer and then… That was only supposed to be a six-month job, and it eventually became six years. And I get restless. I always found something new to explore,  something new to do, but after six years and three years of being the editor for one of the books they published, I realised there wasn’t anywhere else to go in that company that wouldn’t have taken me away entirely from writing and editing. Which was the hook I had held on to throughout it.

BM: From the LRB.

TW: Yes, but also to keep me in that job. And then I turned 30 and I think probably almost cynically I used 30 as a fairly clichéd reason to go ‘let me throw everything up in the air and see where it lands’.

BM: Nothing wrong with that.

TW: So yes, that finished and then… I had a friend who was already writing for what Exeunt was at that point – the theatre section of another website, MusicOMH. So my friend had already reviewed for that site, and put me in touch with Natasha Tripney, who was and still is the editor of Exeunt. And that’s where the reviewing began.

I realised… it was like waking up a kind of vocabulary or a way or looking at things that I probably had at university, but I was now ten years older, with a lot of technical skills that I’d acquired and a lot less riding on me in terms of these is going to be an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ or a classification for a degree – and just loving it. And feeling really privileged to be able to go and see shows – sometimes really far flung – and getting to dig into the detail of what they were trying to do and whether they succeeded.

Of course, I look back at some of my earlier reviews and they’re very clunky and very over-written…

BM: You have to learn how to write, don’t you?

TW: Yes… I guess it’s a little bit like…

BM: I mean, no one is born knowing how to write…

TW: No, but sometimes I read my reviews and see the flaws in them. And I wonder sometimes if you read a review of a show that you did ten years ago – where they’re being perceptive on the directing – whether you can see similar traces of where you’ve progressed from as well.

BM: I think no one is born knowing how to direct either. I think everybody goes through periods of time where their skills don’t match what they would like to achieve. And it can be difficult. You have to persevere through that – and work out, as you did, um, how it works.

TW: Yeah. I mean, I really enjoyed doing it. I will never probably get to the point at which I’m not just kicking a review out of the door rather than being proud of it. There is usually a point at which I file it and go, ‘This is it. I can’t do anymore to this now. I’m not happy with it, I’ll never be happy with it, but I can’t just keep sitting on it.’ I think probably I only get a halfway realistic appreciation of anything I’ve written about a year later, when I’ve not read it for a while…

BM: [laughs] Yes, I know. Of course.

TW:… and I’ve forgotten all of the thoughts I’d wished I’d put in or all of the avenues I could have taken. And all I’m doing… it’s a little bit like, sitting on your arm until it’s dead and then it feels like someone else’s.

BM: So when you wank with it…

TW: [laughs. A lot]

BM: [cackles] That’s where that’s all going!

TW: I know, I know… Exactly. Where am I going to put that in?

[More laughter]

BM: [kindly trying to salvage things] No, no… So, um…

TW: So… when you’re reading it, it’s essentially like someone else wrote it, because you can’t really remember doing it at the time.

BM: Like reading another critic? Well, that’s interesting, that you have to read it like it was someone else’s, before you can judge it properly?

TW: Because I probably am a very different writer now to the one I was in, say, October 2010. Partly because I’ve just seen a lot more theatre. So effectively that was a different person writing. I mean… following that line, I always find it interesting when people talk about plays being reviewed too harshly or reviewed too positively – the five star/one star spectrum. Actually, I think the real danger for reviewers is that you become deadened to either end of the spectrum because, in the end, after enough years doing it, you have always seen something better and you have always seen something worse. So my concern is that what happens there is that gradually everything converges onto three stars.

BM: Yes, of course. The heat goes out of the universe.

TW: Yep.

BM: It all ends up at room temperature.

TW: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Thank you, Blanche. Nicely done…

BM: So extremes pale.

TW: Yes. And there is a whole… and I have launched by default into star ratings and there is a whole debate…

BM: Yes, of course. Because it’s a very simplistic way of measuring one’s very complex response to a piece of work.

TW: Yes, yes. And that’s one of the worries I have, that that is a system that probably still holds a greater place than it should do. But I also… I do think that if you’re a casual theatre-goer – and I love the fact that with Exeunt, when it’s a production that I think, actually, does not benefit from a star rating – the piece doesn’t work that way – the idea that I can not do that is very liberating.

But I do think, sometimes, we… possibly maybe on the creative side, but certainly on the theatre criticism side… I sometimes feel that we talk a lot to ourselves and talk an awful lot on behalf of an imagined reader, but don’t always imagine that the actual reader him or herself – who is an occasional theatre-goer, who has grown up with the idea of star ratings, who might be busy, who might be in a rush, who does want to do something interesting but may not always have the time to plough through a 1000 words without any kind of indicator…

BM: And will either read the star rating or the headline if you don’t, yes…

TW: I suppose I like the fact that a site like Exeunt enables me to write the review that I think is best fitted to the production, in a way that if I were writing exclusively for newspapers or magazines, that wouldn’t be an option. I suppose what I am concerned about is that we become a high tower talking to ourselves.

BM: Yes, I see. But then that’s one of the things I’ve rather loved in the past few years in the development of online criticism, is that one can address something at more length because you know that the people who are going to go there are more informed, more interested and probably have the time to read that kind of review. So on the one hand, you might be an ivory tower talking to yourself, but the people you’re sucking to you might want to be in that tower as well. And if they want a two paragraph review they can go to a different kind of… there is always going to be a star rating, quick sketch. But there isn’t always going to be room for an essay.

Blanche McIntyre's Accolade

Blanche McIntyre’s Accolade

TW: Yes, exactly. And I suppose one of the inheritances of, again, my experience of doing my master’s thesis is a sensitivity or an anxiety that I’ve carried through into my own writing. One of the many things that disenchanted me about academia was that there were certain textbooks I was reading where intelligent thought was substituted with arcane language. Often the use of the word ‘discourse’ when ‘language’ would have done. That appearance of intelligence or the idea that you looked right if you weren’t easy to understand, really bothers me.

BM: Oh, me too.

TW: I come from a teaching background – my mother was a teacher, as you know, and then a head-teacher before she retired. And I’ve always thought that one of the skills in imparting your perspective is not how clever you are, and how much you know, but how you’re able to convey those ideas to someone where there might be a disparity of background or education or just different experience. And that truly intelligent writing isn’t about looking clever, it’s about someone who doesn’t come from where you come from, understand your point anyway. And I suppose that’s… sometimes I feel that the debate over star ratings begins to verge into that sense of…

BM: Slightly navel-gazing…

TW: A little bit. And I can only speak for myself, and I suspect I worry that is a tendency I would see in myself if I wasn’t being vigilant. I think that clear writing that is intelligent and thoughtful, but which is also accessible – we go back to that word again – which doesn’t mean pandering to the lowest common denominator.

BM: No, it means – at least I think it does – opening up these extraordinarily ambitious things to everyone.

TW: Yes. And I suppose that’s one of the things that Exeunt enables me and others to do. And also to write reviews in a way that sometimes almost borders on the kinds of things you might see in fiction writing – the same rhetorical tropes. The idea that you can be creative with criticism rather than the stereotype that it is either a brief notice or it is about pinning someone to a board like a butterfly.

BM: Yes, yes, yes. I was going to ask how it feels to specifically be a theatre critic or a literary critic or a music critics, or something like that. Because it did seem when you were talking about the star ratings that some of it is informed by a slight defensiveness about the overall importance of theatre criticism as a whole, which I don’t think… I think it’s incredibly important. I think theatre is actually – for all that people take pot shots at it from time to time – a flourishing and very popular art form. They say that more people come to the West End than go to football matches – that more theatre tickets are sold than theatre tickets. But every now and then I feel like I sometimes encounter a sense that a case has to be made for theatre and for theatre criticism by extension.

TW: Mmm… I suppose what it comes down to is love. I really love going to the theatre and when I see a show that works for me, it sings. And I feel then that I want other people to understand why this is so brilliant and why they should go and see it. At the same time, over the four years, I’ve probably become more opinionated about what I don’t like as well. Hopefully not in a superficial way, but in what I feel profoundly that theatre is trying and sometimes failing to achieve – versus theatre that’s lazy or retrogressive in some way.

I feel as though my job is not to put myself in front of the reader and the play but to try my best to open as many doors for a reader into seeing a play – or at least to get them through the actual door. And if I want them to stay well away from the venue, I have to make damn sure that I’m explaining properly why, rather than just being rude.

BM: Yes, I think that makes sense.

TW: And I’m sure, like everyone in any industry, I don’t always measure up to my own ambitions. I’m sure there are times when I’ve just been nasty. But as long as I try and bear in mind that my goal essentially is, ‘go and see this, this is why, this is why it relates to you, this is why it’s important’ – while at the same time explaining why I feel profoundly that a piece does a disservice to audiences.

BM: Which is so important. I think probably the touchstone is, could you look the theatre-maker in the eye and say it to them as well. And if you could, then obviously it’s crucial to say it – to them, because they’ll read it, and to everyone else, because they need to know too. And I guess if that is the case, if you can always back up your judgement with why, then it doesn’t really matter if it’s a personal judgement, does it? It can’t not be a personal judgement.

TW: No, I think that’s true. I would like to think that anything I’ve ever written about every play I’ve ever seen is something where I could turn round to a director or a writer or an actor and say, ‘I stand by this.’

BM: Yes. ‘And this is why.’

TW: This would be so uncommercial as to be impossible – and even for an online site like Exeunt, it would be unhelpful for a reader, so we’d be back in the territory of it being for my sake – but I’m sure there are productions that I’ve seen over the years that, by virtue of my changed circumstances, I would review differently now. It would be really interesting to do that. Every review is written as though it’s a final statement, but, of course, every theatre reviewer – if they’re being honest – knows that every opinion is provisional based on time, potentially.

BM: Yes, and seeing My Night with Reg’s press night last night and its press night at the Donmar are two different things, because the context is different. The space is different and this time around it arrives as a well-reviewed, massively popular show. Last time around it arrived as a surprise.

Tooting Arts Club's Barbarians. Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Tooting Arts Club’s Barbarians. Credit: Ellie Kurttz

TW: Yes, and I think there is a real joy in being at the front line of that. But I guess that play opened at the Donmar, so there was already going to be a certain material quality of staging, and it had previously won an Olivier.

But there are times when… actually one of the things that still stands out to me was the year of the Offies – the Off West End Awards, for which I’m one of the panel’s super-assessors – the year that you won… was it the year that you won? No, it was the year after you winning Best Director for Accolade. We gave the award to Eileen Atkins for Best Actress, and that was great because I felt that showed that fringe and off West End theatre wasn’t just something you graduated from – it was viable in its own right.

But, anyway, the Best Actor award went to a guy called Thomas Coombes who I had seen when I was in a foul mood. He was in a play called Barbarians. It was in Tooting, and I remember I wasn’t very well, and it was cold, and I got there and – if I’m being honest – it was going to have to impress me! I think afterwards I had to go back to my parents’ house in Sussex, so the whole evening was a trek.

And that production just blew me away, in this cold, former youth centre – a really raw, visceral piece of theatre. And I came away thinking, ‘I just want everyone to know about this.’

And in some ways, that happened because I was writing for Time Out and I go where I’m sent. And sometimes that works – it opens me up to things that I would never have thought to go and see. Which challenge me and which turn out to be really great. And when I see a show like that – or Grounded, where I was one of the first reviewers when it opened in Edinburgh, or even something called Going Dark at the Young Vic a few years ago, which did the most amazing things of playing with your senses and also the beauty and sadness of living by sound alone – I come out feeling like I’m floating. And I know that I’m the first person to see this work.

BM: So, you’re a pioneer really.

TW: Well… I feel strongly the responsibility to make sure that work of this quality resonates with a reader of my review, so they want to go and see it, too, because there’s nothing I feel people should be doing more than booking their tickets straight away. I want to make sure my writing captures that quality. And I love it when that happens. And I love it when you stumble across something for all kinds of unlikely reasons and it’s just…

BM:… extraordinary.

TW: Yes, and you know that your words are going to be among the first that get printed or published about that production.

BM: So, in that case – going back to what we said before – it’s a personal task and a public task. On the one hand, you have to respond openly, however grumpy or tired or ill you are, but also you have then a job to call other people to this thing. Because of its quality – whatever it is.

TW: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And I think…

BM: Or to warn them to stay away!

TW: Or that. Although, I don’t enjoy doing that – unless I really hate something, and I feel as strongly about that as I do about inviting them to go and see something. But, I mean… And I know that every sentence I think I get right, there are at least a dozen that I don’t. And I always wish I had more words or I wish I had more time. And I’m sure that, on many occasions, I’ve failed in catching what I want to say. But I think I’ve never lost the urge to keep trying, because I really care about it. And I would rather struggle to find the words than to give up and not do it at all.

BM: It must be a hell of a task, actually, to judge something fairly and clearly within a very finite space.

TW: Yes.

BM: Within a very small word-count, to do right by the play and your audience.

TW: And particularly when you’re somewhere like, say, the Edinburgh Festival, where you’re hurtling around that city, trying to make sense of its multi-layers – and I never get the right staircases to get to the right level of the city, so I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time – yeah, you are just trying to bang out the words as quickly as you can. But at the same time trying to make sure there is still integrity to it.

BM: Because in two years’ time, that will be on the record still. And in ten years’ time, that will be the Tom Wicker, Critic, stamp of… the description of what it is.

TW: Yeah, but… I’m even a bit fidgety about the word critic. Partly because it’s so loaded with… this is my English degree coming out… there’s something very po-faced and Shelley about the sort of ‘unacknowledged legislator’ bit. The idea that we are these grand, principled guardians. And I don’t want to be that. I’m still a theatre-goer. And still, as I think I should be, primarily a member of the audience – maybe one who’s paying more attention, because that’s my job – but still one of those people. So I’d rather talk about being someone who writes about theatre. ‘Critic’ is such an austere word and – in my head – self-aggrandising term, as if someone’s given me badge. And I don’t see it like that.

BM: Well, I guess it’s a still a responsibility.

TW: Yes, but I can still fulfil that responsibility by calling myself a theatre ‘writer’ rather than a ‘critic’. That word feels as though it should come with a capital ‘c’.

BM: Yes, you’re right. I can see that there’s a sense in which you allow yourself to write to judge, as opposed to…

TW: And I look around at people who are writing about theatre now, who are eminently more qualified – if that word is going to be used – to have it applied to them than me.

BM: How do you qualify for that, though?

TW: [pause] Length of time? Maybe I will rely on your tactic and just talk about ten years from now.

BM: [laughs] And what do you want to be doing ten years from now?

TW: I want to be a theatre critic, please, Blanche.

[Both laugh]

TW: Right, I think we’re done…

Read the first part of Tom Wicker’s conversation with Blanche McIntyre.

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Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and OffWestEnd.com, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.